Smash Pages Q&A | Alex Segura’s ‘Secret Identity’

The comics writer, novelist and industry veteran discusses his newest book, which combines his love of mysteries with the comic book industry.

Alex Segura is known to comics readers for various comics projects ranging from The Dusk to The Black Ghost to Archie Meets the B-52’s to the upcoming The Awakened, but the Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Oni-Lion Forge has another career as a novelist. Segura has written an acclaimed series of novels featuring journalist-turned-private eye Pete Fernandez, and his new novel Secret Identity bridges these two worlds.

A murder mystery set in 1970s New York, the novel centers around Carmen Valdez, an assistant at Triumph Comics who aspires to be a writer. After a co-worker is murdered, Valdez tries to understand what happened. Chapters of the novel are also interspersed with pages from the fictional The Lynx comic book, which Valdez co-wrote in the novel, but are drawn by real-life artist Sandy Jarrell.

The novel is a departure for Segura, less focused on plot but more about character and atmosphere, focused on evoking another era and a look inside the comics industry of that time. It’s his best and richest work to date, and we had a chance to talk recently about the novel, which is out this week.

Secret Identity felt like a book with a lot of elements that have been in your brain for a long time, before you ever started thinking about writing a novel.

Sometimes you just dive into an idea and don’t think about where it came from, but the kernel of Secret Identity dates back to college when I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which obviously was a huge influence. That sense of verisimilitude that it weaves through history and can exist in its own way. I remember reading that book and loving it. I already liked Chabon’s work. I loved Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys and reading that I felt seen. Someone was blending comics with literature and my two passions together in one thing. Not that comics are not literature, but the world of comics. I remember leaving the experience wanting to read those Escapist comics. I wanted to see Kavalier’s art and see how it evolved over time. We got to some degree with the Dark Horse Books later, but I wanted them woven together. I wasn’t even a novelist at that point. I had this dream of being a writer, but that’s when that popped in my mind.

My first five novels were a P.I. series set in Miami starring a Cuban-American protagonist and I knew the fifth novel was going to be the end before I even started writing it, so I started thinking about what do I want to do next. I knew I didn’t want to lock into a whole new series. My favorite kind of novels are the ones that take you somewhere else. That transport you to another place or time or industry or world. While still adhering to the tropes of noir and crime fiction. I don’t know how much Megan Abbott you’ve read, but I love books like Dare Me or The Turnout where she takes readers into areas like gymnastics or cheerleading or science, which you wouldn’t immediately think about when thinking about murder mysteries. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if there was a comic book murder mystery? I’m sure I wasn’t the first to think of that, but that coupled with the idea of weaving the actual comics being produced into the story and making it this meta conversation between the prose and the comics felt really fun. Then Carmen showed up. I knew that I needed to position it at a time when comics weren’t as prevalent as they are today. Now we have Peacemaker and Doom Patrol TV shows and Ant-Man movies. This is the world we dreamt of as kids. Back when it was so crazy to even have a Blade movie, but now it’s everywhere. I wanted to set this at a time when comics were not pop culture. They were this publishing industry that had a dedicated fandom, but was also flailing as an industry.

Setting the book in the ’70s is an interesting choice. It’s a great period for a lot of reasons, and with comics there’s a way that the 1960s and 1980s, for example, get simplified, but the 1970s were weird and a mess and all over the place in really interesting ways.

I have a theory – and you can probably poke holes in it – but before comics became superhero comics in terms of action figures and cartoons in the ’80s proliferation, there was a “Wild West” period. I think that in the ’70s there was not as much editorial oversight because people didn’t really think in terms of IP or branding or commercialization. So you had stuff like Jim Starlin’s Warlock or Steve Gerber on The Defenders. These off the wall writers taking huge risks with what now in retrospect we see as major IP brands like The Hulk or Silver Surfer, and just telling these bonkers stories because the companies didn’t have the infrastructure that we later saw. When you saw Jim Shooter elevated to EIC he takes a more centralized approach. Before that – and I’m speaking based on reading and not first hand experience – it felt more like a confederacy of editorial fiefdoms as opposed to something mandated. There wasn’t a hard and fast continuity.

Back then the creative team could say, “Let’s kill Gwen Stacy in this issue.” Now it would require a multiyear plan and dozens of people to approve that.

Yeah, I think Stan Lee didn’t even know she was dead.

The 1970s, besides being an interesting period for comics, is also an interesting period for New York City.

I wanted to contrast the comic book industry, but I also wanted to contrast New York. The idea of New York today is very commercialized and “Disneyfied,” but there was a time when New York was falling apart. It was financially in ruins. It was a pretty dangerous place to live. If you lived there, you knew how to navigate it, but there was this sense that this city is crumbling. America was crumbling a little bit, coming out of Vietnam and Watergate. Ford telling New York to go to hell. It felt a lot more interesting as a time capsule than just setting it in New York today. 

Compared to your earlier novels, which were P.I. novels, this is a book that’s about character and atmosphere and about 1970s New York and the music scene as much as it is the comics industry.

I love the P.I. novel and I love that I was able to invert and flip some tropes and push it forward in my own little way, but there was some liberation in being able to tell a story that is a crime novel, but isn’t necessarily a crime novel first. It’s really a study of the industry and the character and New York at the time and music and Carmen’s journey. There’s a murder and she has to solve a murder, but I hope that people get the texture of the comic book world and are intrigued enough if they’re not comics readers to dig into it a little bit more. I also didn’t want it to feel like at every mention of a name, I was rattling off their wikipedia pages. I wanted it to be something where if you know, you know, and if you’re not in the know, and are intrigued enough to do the research and dig into these people, but I didn’t want to slow the pace of the story with the wikipedia-ing of it all.

There’s a mix of actual people and comics, and made up ones, and, let us say, the Segura-verse?

[laughs] You are the second person to have caught that and I hope it brought you a chuckle as it brought me a chuckle as I wrote it. The Freedom Alliance is the team that’s going to be in The Awakened. I think we’ve only announced the title and the high concept, but the Avengers-like team is called the Freedom Alliance. [laughs]

You made sure to do the same with the music scene.

I’m a music nut and especially that particular era of CBGB – Talking Heads, the tail end of The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed and John Cale and Patti Smith and Springsteen coming up. It was a very fertile period. That was as much a motivation to set it at that time. If I was going to set it in New York, I should do New York in the 1970s with punk coming to life. I wanted to write about the punk rock scene, and I wanted to add texture to the mystery itself.

This is a book where you got to write about a lot of things you love.

I think the best books – and I think you can tell it as a reader and a writer – are when you’re writing about things you’re obsessed with. I don’t like to do homework. I don’t like to do research. I like to read about something because I’m passionate about it. I found myself rereading the essential comic book histories. Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story was particularly helpful because he spends a lot of time on this era. I picked his brain a little bit while I was writing the book because I could tell as a reader that he was particularly fond of this period so we went back and forth. That’s what really spurred me on. I read a lot of the books I loved about comic book history like Jill Lepore’s book on Wonder Woman. I really loved The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu. That book has an opening scene where he interviews a woman creator who worked in the ’50s for one of the horror publishers and like many creators her career faded away. That was fascinating to me. The idea that someone could just be lost to the sands of time. That was really a motivating factor in creating Carmen and having this sense of verisimilitude. 

Talk about Carmen, who is the protagonist. 

When I created Pete, my series character, he just showed up and I knew who he was immediately. It was very easy because we have a lot of similarities and I just thought, “This is never going to happen again. I’m going to have to work harder when I create another character.” But Carmen appeared to me in the same way.

Once I had the dressing of what the novel was going to be, she showed up. She is so much the counter to Pete. She’s very organized and driven. My favorite scene in the book early on she’s brainstorming with Harvey and he’s just totally winging it and she busts out these notebooks. She’s not going to miss this opportunity. I wanted to try my hand at writing something a little different. I didn’t want it to just feel like Pete 2.0.

It felt important to show the hurdles she had to get over as a woman in comics at the time. What I love about her as a character is that she’s very smart, driven, savvy, but she also understands the gray areas of the world and is forgiving of those gray areas. When Harvey approaches her you’re screaming, “Don’t do it!” But she’s smart enough to know, “This is the only opportunity I’m going to have and I will regret it forever if I don’t take it.” She’s willing to take that risk. Those are the moments that I really admire her.

I’m talking as if I didn’t create her, but they do come to life on their own. Those moments where she takes risks and leaps that I think normal people like you or I might avoid just because of danger or fear, she takes them. There’s a fearlessness to her that I really admire that pairs nicely with her logic and the drive. I think her backstory and the relationship with her father and her family is bubbling under throughout the novel, which I was happy with because I think we all have baggage like that. Unresolved issues. You don’t really know what someone else is dealing with. I wanted to give that undercurrent to the novel, too.

As Carmen is working with Harvey, I think a lot of comics people will read it and go, “She’s going to regret this!” But all the creators are going to regret a lot.

Comics is littered with stories of people not getting the credit they deserve or creating characters and not owning them. That’s just a sad part of the history in many ways. That said, during this time many people understood work for hire, but many didn’t. I wanted to evoke that. It’s very common in comics. I wanted to echo that through Carmen and this book without being too heavy handed about it. 

You have several great characters in this book, and I’m sure a lot of people will read this and go, “Who were the real life analogues?

I’ve gotten that question so many times. Is Doug Detmer this guy? Is Marion this person? There’s no one for one. There’s a lot of amalgamations, but that makes it sound like it was A plus B equals C, and it wasn’t. I wanted them to evoke a certain archetype in many ways. Doug Detmer is the archetypal talented but difficult artist, that we’ve all interacted with in some way, who’s a stickler for quality and his vision. There’s a lot of Toth and Jack Cole and Wally Wood, but I didn’t spend time saying this is my Wally Wood and this is my Trina Robbins or what have you. It was interesting to play with that, but it is a question I’ve gotten a lot.

Marion was interesting for many reasons, but also because she was a person straddling mainstream comics and the underground at that time.

It’s set in the world of superhero comics because I have a passion for superhero comics and that was the “mainstream” part of comics at the time. But I did want to recognize that it wasn’t the only thing going on. There was great stuff happening in California and underground comics were starting to percolate and cook. It’s funny because Marion was never meant to be a key character. She was just supposed to show up in that volleyball scene and go away. She was just this ominous hint about Harvey, but I really thought she was intriguing so I subverted my outline as I was writing. I really liked writing her and I had Marion come back and she becomes so integral to the plot. She was such a counterbalance to Carmen. She was this world weary, savvy and self-aware character in a way that Carmen wasn’t yet. I felt like Carmen could see a future version of herself.

Not to spoil anything, but based on the epilogue, Carmen becomes that kind of character who straddles different fields and becomes that sort of figure. Look at the women in comics and they all very much had to make their own path because they didn’t have the option of being “typical.”

It’s true. This book was so journalistically involved – so much more than a typical P.I. novel – and one of the things I’m most thankful for was getting to talk with people who worked in comics and women who worked in comics at that time or around that time. I got to speak to Linda Fite, who wrote The Cat for Marvel. That was really helpful. I ran the plot by her and I asked, “Is this crazy?” I mean, it is crazy because it’s a murder mystery novel, but she said, “I could see that.” I spoke to Louise Simonson to get a sense of not only what it was like to work at Marvel but work at Warren. These were all like hour long conversations. I didn’t do a deep dive, but I wanted to get a tonal sense. Karen Berger was really helpful with her time. She came in later, in the ’80s, but in terms of being a prominent woman in comics, Karen is a legend. There were other comics pros like Paul Levitz who read an early version and was very helpful in terms of logistical stuff. Things like, “This wouldn’t happen, you wouldn’t get a sales report this early, production-wise this would be next in the chain.” Things I thought I knew, but I didn’t know how they were back in the 1970s. Stuart Moore was really helpful in that regard. So was Scott Edelman. Gerry Conway is a legend and he gave me so much of his time sharing war stories and telling me who lived where and in what neighborhoods – the rent was cheaper there because it was more riddled with crime – and that affected where Carmen lived. Little things like that, which no one is really going to notice when you read. Or if you do, you’re so inside baseball. I wanted it to have that sense of accuracy without becoming a nonfiction work.

Research can be tricky. It’s like a glacier and you research so much more than you ever show.

I wanted to strike a balance where readers like us who are embedded in comics would read it and get a kick out of my name dropping so and so or referencing this or that convention happened at that time. But I didn’t want that to encumber a casual reader whop just wants to read a mystery and is intrigued about comics and may leave wanting to read some comics. That was a big balance I had to strike.

Structure is so important in all of your writing and Secret Identity is a different kind of novel and requires a different kind of approach. I feel you were very conscious of this.

I was not ready to write this book when I wrote [my first book] Silent City. I definitely was not ready to write a New York novel. Even though we’re in Carmen’s head, the novel has a wider lens. It’s a bigger world, whereas in a P.I. novel it’s very focused. I just didn’t feel ready to write a New York novel. I needed to go through some seasoning. I needed to feel that I have the chops. This is much more of an arthouse film. If the Pete books are much more straight noir, this one leans more into atmosphere without sacrificing plot, I hope. 

One of the big things that I was mindful of was that I didn’t want the comic book sequences to feel like dressing. I didn’t want them to feel like he just threw them in there to show off and that they have no bearing on the plot. I feel like they’re integral to the plot and they’re in conversation together. You see Carmen filtering her experiences and thoughts and fears into these comics. So much so that – not to spoil anything – there’s one sequence written and drawn by hack creators that take over the series and that was fun showing how tonally comics can change and it’s about who is creating them. You see that in comics all the time. I wanted it to feel more like a Highsmith novel, something more tonal and atmospheric and a little more human level. Less about cars blowing up and intense action and more about subtle character moments. With a murder. [laughs]

This is a novel about character and atmosphere and I think William Gibson talked about how if you take the armature of a thriller and as long as you follow that, you can do almost anything.

That’s a great way to describe it. I would find I was writing and going deeper and deeper into these characters and then I would remind myself that it’s a murder mystery so I have to tap back into that and remind the reader. Not because the plot was meandering, but I was having so much fun with everything else. I could have written 300 more pages set in that world. And who knows what the future will hold, but I didn’t want to lose the focus of it being a mystery novel. It should be fun and entertaining and the characters should leave you wanting more. 

You mentioned the comics that are part of the book. That idea was there from the start.

It’s funny because we even got a deal, I had written part of it and had sectioned off the interludes and was thinking who would be the person to draw this. I needed someone who was a great storyteller, but also someone who was immersed in comic book history, has a great sense of the traditions of comics and the different styles. I’ve known Sandy forever. I think even before I was at Archie. I love his style. He’s a beautiful artist and he can also evoke different styles and eras really well. I reached out to him because he was my first choice and he was game. We worked on it Marvel style. I would send him a few paragraphs explaining what I wanted and I’d leave it to him to lay out and design it with the understanding that we want to evoke comics from the seventies. I think he nailed it. When you look at those comics, you get a sense that they’re from another time. We had a great shorthand and understanding. And then he would lay out the page and I would come up with the script and Taylor Esposito the letterer did a great job making the lettering look handwritten and evoking that period. I’m really proud of the result. It’s been really fun to see people respond to those sequences.

I wanted you to believe that you could find an issue of The Lynx in a back issue bin somewhere. The way you’d find an Atlas/Seaboard or Charleton comic. This lost artifact.

So you’ve written a novel about comics creators. Are you going to write a comic about novelists?

[laughs] It’s not that exciting. I mean I guess you could add a supernatural element like The Dark Half, the Steven King novel, which is one of my favorite books about writers. I don’t know. I hadn’t even thought of that. I just feel like you can evoke the mundane parts about making comics really well in prose in a way that you can’t evoke the mundane parts of writing a novel in comics. 

He goes into the city to have a meeting with his publisher and show different angles from the same office. He gets the mail and rips it open and sees his royalties are really low. [laughs] That doesn’t have to be in the 1970s.

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